A Passing Fashion:
Appearance and Transcendence in
Doris Lessing's The Summer Before the Dark and
Paule Marshall's Praisesong for the Widow

Americana: The Journal of American Popular Culture (1900-present), Fall 2006, Volume 5, Issue 2

Evelyn Pezzulich
Bridgewater State College

Fashion may be self-expression, but it can also be disguise. While the prosaic word “clothes” denotes utilitarian garments to warm and protect the naked body, “fashion” connotes costume, adornment, and a different kind of protection. Women learn early that, in part, to dress well means to disguise superficial flaws – the protruding stomach or fleshy thighs. Fashion also pertains to hair color, hairstyle, and other similar concerns.

In literature, fashion has often been used to symbolize the material while the casting off of such trappings symbolizes the reconstruction of an authentic identity. Both Doris Lessing’s The Summer Before the Dark and Paule Marshall’s Praisesong for the Widow present middle-aged female protagonists who have used fashion to create false identities that transcend social barriers of age, class, and race. The very fact that one writer is Caucasian and British while the other is African American attests to the widespread nature of these concerns. Lessing’s Kate Brown enlists the aid of dress and hair color to pass for a younger woman, while Marshall’s Avey Johnson uses clothes not only to gain acceptance in white society but also to attain upper middle class status. In passing for what they are not, however, both characters become trapped in what Simone de Beauvoir has termed the “elegance of bondage” (Wilson 125).

Near the end of The Summer Before the Dark in a section entitled “Maureen’s Flat,” Kate Brown – the forty-five year old wife of a successful neurologist and mother of four – stops in front of a mirror in a young woman’s apartment where she’s renting a room:

She saw a thin monkey of a woman inside a “good” yellow dress, her hair tied into a lump behind her head….She noted that she was in the grip of a need to do something for herself – get her hair done, buy a dress that fitted; this was because of the girl with her healthy young flesh, and her fresh clothes. She noted, too, that this impulse had something to do with her own daughter: Maureen was about Eileen’s age. (Lessing 166-67)

As she continues to gaze at herself in the full length mirror, Kate’s realization that she needs to do something with herself encapsulates the main conflict of the novel: “She saw that the moment of returning to her own family was going to be a dramatic one, whether by that time she had pulled herself together – in other words, returned to their conception of her – or had decided not to” 167).

As Jennifer Craik suggests in her book, The Face of Fashion, fashion is a language or set of codes used not only to perform social intercourse (9) but to “fabricate our selves” (16). This “language” is precisely how Kate Brown has created her middle class, suburban image to fit her roles as the comely middle-aged wife of a successful doctor and mother of four grown children. Although by her own admission she would prefer to go barefoot, dress in a sari, and wear her hair straight and long, when we first meet Kate she is, instead, attired in a white dress and pink scarf with matching white shoes with coiffed, wavy red hair. It is against this stylish image that Kate ponders the choice of returning to her family looking as she did then or looking as she does before the mirror – thinner, older, and with hair no longer dyed and styled but unruly and bisected by a widening streak of gray. The decision, spurred by the onset of middle age and the ensuing inevitable comparison with a younger generation of women such as Maureen and her daughter, Eileen, is no slight sartorial matter. For what is at stake is Kate’s identity and authenticity.

Elizabeth Wilson points out in Adorned in Dreams: Fashion and Modernity that appearance became entwined with identity in the nineteenth century (123) so that in fashioning dress identity could also be formed: “It is this shift from clothing as part of a social project to clothing as part of an identity that really launches it into its most ‘modern’ manifestations” (218). With this shift, however, to the “idea of the Self as a Work of Art” (123), came the criticism that what was created was a false self as expressed by Simone de Beauvoir in The Second Sex:

The least sophisticated of women, once she is “dressed,” does not present herself to observation; she is, like the picture or statue, or the actor on the stage, an agent through which is suggested someone not there – that is, the character she represents, but is not. It is this identification with something unreal, fixed, perfect…that gratifies her…. (125)

This perfect image of the successful doctor’s wife and mother has ostensibly gratified Kate Brown – that is until this unsettling summer when she has been left alone by her husband and grown children for the first time in twenty-five years only to become acutely aware of impending age and the waning of her sexual allure.

After two attempts to distract herself from this awareness, first through a summer job as a translator and then through a brief affair with a younger man in Spain, Kate suffers an illness that foregrounds her spiritual crisis. This crisis is set in even higher relief when she returns to England and rents a flat from a young woman named Maureen, who serves as a foil to show Kate’s lost youth and lost sense of self. It is in this emotional miasma that Kate finds herself as she studies her reflection in the mirror, wondering whether she should dye her hair and buy a dress that fits before returning home to her family or stay as she is now, no longer caring about her style and image. Kate finally resolves her dilemma when she returns home on her own terms, her newly authentic identity made manifest in her refusal to dye her hair: “The clothes, hair style, manners, posture, voice of Mrs. Brown…had been a reproduction the slightest deviation from which had caused her…much discomfort….But now she was saying no: no, no, no, NO: a statement which would be concentrated into her hair” (Lessing 244).

Kate Brown’s conflict between becoming her authentic self or returning to her conventional role at the end of the summer is one that is revisited a decade later and complicated by issues of race and class in Praisesong for the Widow. Kate struggled against societal mandates that equate female power with youth, beauty, and the ability to attract the male gaze. The sixty-four year old widow, Avatara Johnson, has made peace with middle age. But Marshall’s African American protagonist must contend with societal norms that seek to inscribe the culture with dominant white values that include upward mobility. Greatly influenced by these values, Avey and Jay, her husband, struggled for over twenty years to leave their five-floor, walkup apartment in Brooklyn on Halsey Street and purchase a home in the suburb of North White Plains. The only problem is that in forging a new middle class identity to fit in with their white neighbors, they lose both their roots and themselves in a Faustian bargain to gain status. It is only after Jerome’s death, the stern workaholic who came to replace Jay, that Avey embarks on a cruise that turns out to be a journey towards her true identity. Connecting with her roots on the Caribbean island of Carriacou, she can finally, like her African ancestors the Ibos, walk away from her enslavement to money and possessions and reclaim her name, “Avatara,” and therefore herself.

When we first meet Avey on the luxurious liner, the Bianca Pride, the struggle has just begun against her Western capitalistic values as she packs in the middle of the night, feeling the bewildering need to abandon ship mid-cruise after a disorienting dream about her great-aunt Cuney. The excess she has been straining under for years is symbolized by the “marathon packing” of six suitcases, a shoe caddy, and a hatbox. “But why six, Mother? Why would anyone in their right mind need to take this much stuff just to go away for a couple of weeks,” Marion, Avey’s youngest child, had asked when she drove her mother to the pier on her first cruise, three years earlier (Marshall 13). By the time morning dawns and the necessity of facing her two cabin mates arises, Avey Johnson has controlled her panic and confusion and reassembled her image as a staid, respectable upper middle-class widow in her “dressy two-piece ensemble,” “conservative pumps,” and “mesh summer gloves with a single crystal button at the wrist” (20).

While her cabin mates think that Avey has “lost her mind” (24) to forfeit the fifteen hundred dollars she paid for the cruise only to incur more expense by flying home, ironically, Avey is just beginning to repossess her mind and soul. The dream Avey experienced on board, in which she and her great-aunt Cuney had a tug of war, recalls for Avey the values she grew up with when staying every summer on Tatem Island on the South Carolina Tidewater. It was from her great-aunt that she learned of her African ancestors, the Ibos, who were brought to South Carolina as slaves, took one look into the future, then turned around, and walked on water all the way back to Africa.

In Avey’s dream, her great-aunt Cuney once more wants Avey to walk with her through the rugged terrain to the spot known as the Landing from where the Ibos departed. But Avey is hampered by her clothes in her dream as she is when we first meet her trying to leave ship burdened with six suitcases to be repacked:

Did she really expect her to go walking over to the Landing dressed as she was? In the new spring suit she had just put on to wear to the annual luncheon at the Statler given by Jerome Johnson’s lodge?…With her hat and gloves on? And her fur stole draped over her arm? Avey Johnson could have laughed, the idea was so ridiculous. (Marshall 40)

Her great-aunt Cuney, who named Avey “Avatara” after her own grandmother and charged her with a mission Avey only vaguely understood, does not give up in the dream, though, as the two grapple in a prolonged tug of war. It is no surprise that the strongly rooted older woman wins, wresting Avey’s fur stole from her arm, the symbol of her class status and success. As I quoted earlier from Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, the “dressed” woman is “an agent through which is suggested someone not there – that is, the character she represents, but is not” (125). In this sense, the false self that Avey has created is as disembodied by her grounded, authentic self as the fur stole is by a once vigorously living animal. It is precisely this eviscerated perfect image of the upper class matron, this “Marion Anderson poise and reserve” that had gratified Avey Johnson and assured her that “she would never be sent to eat in the kitchen when company came!” This striving for middle class respectability is only reinforced by other aspiring African Americans. When she recounts to her doctor the disturbing fact that she often no longer recognizes herself in a mirror, all he can do is laugh and respond, “a sure sign…of money in the bank” (49).

Because Avey has felt that her clothes and money protect her from the social slights suffered by many African Americans in a racist culture, only after she leaves the Bianca (White) Pride can she summon the courage to confront her past. Finally in a hotel room on the island of Grenada waiting for a plane to New York the next day, she imagines how Jerome would have sided with her cabin mates, castigating her loss of fifteen hundred dollars and warning her that she “must want to wind up back where we started” (88). Yet, it is Jerome who has ultimately paid the price according to critic, Paulette Brown-Hinds, “Jerome Johnson’s western/class based desire to achieve material wealth and success is not without consequence. As their life grows materially, it becomes void spiritually” (111).

But Jay wasn’t the only one who lost himself as Avey dimly grasps when she comes to terms with her husband’s death for the first time in her hotel room. In an outpouring of grief frequently punctuated by the expression, “Too much!” (Marshall 138), Avey laments “both the too much which the couple had lost and also the too much which they had acquired, and which smothered them” (Rogers 6). This awakening of Avey’s is once again symbolized by her clothes – “the trappings of her middle-class excesses” (Lederer 71):

Avey Johnson shucked the gloves off her hands with such violence the fingers turned inside out. The hat slanted to one side on her head found itself being hurled into the nether darkness of a corner. The plush carpeting failed to completely muffle the thud of the shoes she flung down one after the other. With the last of her strength she reached under her dress and, fumbling, unhooked the long-line girdle. (Her hair shirt Marion insisted on calling it.) That was all she could manage before collapsing onto the bed.

“Too much! Too much! Too much!” Raging as she slept. (Marshall 144-45)

This is but the start of a purging of excess that is completed in the second half of the novel. Leaving her mainly white, exclusive tourist hotel the next morning to walk along the beach, Avey wears flats, a crumpled linen shirtdress and foregoes perfectly coiffed hair, make-up, and even her watch. It is “stripped of her middle-class, fashionably-attired façade” (Wells 50) that Avey, since leaving the Bianca Pride, can become vulnerable enough to pour out her painful story to the rum shop keeper, Lebert Joseph, in whose hut she finds shelter from the searing heat. Like great-aunt Cuney, Lebert Joseph is grounded by ancestral links unlike Avey who when asked by Lebert who her ancestors are is unable to answer. In listening to her story, Lebert diagnoses Avey’s soul sickness and alienation and convinces her to accompany him and the other islanders to the smaller island of Carricou to take part in the Big Drum or Nation Dance where the elderly pay homage to their tribal ancestors.

On this final leg of her journey, Avey completes the purgation begun in her hotel room with the flinging off of her restrictive, class conscious clothes. Unlike the six suitcases she packed for her cruise, Avey boards the small schooner for Carricou with only her smallest suitcase carrying necessities. Becoming violently seasick, she vomits repeatedly, symbolizing the cleansing of years of excess.

Immediately preceding this violent purging, Avey’s mind had gone back to a childhood memory of a pastor preaching an Easter Sunday sermon in which Judas was decried for betraying Jesus for mere money, and the congregation was upbraided for “the shameful stone of false values, of gimme gimme gimme and more more more…” (Marshall 201). Like Judas, Avey and Jerome betrayed each other for the money that would allow them to pass as upper middle-class in a white world. But they also betrayed themselves.

It is for this betrayal of her ancestors, her husband, and herself that Avey must make amends in the final section of the novel when she joins in the dance, the Carricou Tramp, and finally reconnects to her ancestral roots. Through the intense cleansing of middle-class self-indulgence made visible in not only her seasickness but the shedding of five suitcases stuffed with clothes, Avey is reborn and unshackles herself from the false identity which had fettered her as strongly as the chains of her ancestors during the middle passage. Feeling alive again as she dances, “moving suddenly with a vigor and passion she hadn’t felt in years” (249), Avey decides to sell her affluent but empty home in North White Plains to recreate her life around a new set of values. Vowing to bring her grandchildren to the Landing every summer in Tatum and to tell them – and all who will listen – the story of the Ibos, Avey finally embraces the mission her great-aunt had entrusted to her and reclaims her true name, Avatara.

By the end of each novel, both Kate Brown and Avatara Johnson refuse to pass for mere chimeras of themselves. Kate’s choice to no longer dye her hair and dress in such a way as to please her family also extends to men in general. After having returned to England to stay in Maureen’s flat, Kate experiments with her power to attract the male gaze after being angered by her invisibility as she passes a group of construction workers. She deliberately sheds her jacket to reveal a form fitting sheath and elicits whistles and catcalls when she passes a second time. Kate chooses, however, to let herself go in an act of defiance of cultural norms that mandate women’s attractiveness to men by passing as younger versions of themselves. Avey also eschews passing as an upper middle class matron by casting off the shackles of a false identity costumed in costly dress that gained her entry into a wealthy, white world. Using fashion to buy social class had only deadened her spirit like her thighs that “had grown thick and inert from years of the long-line girdle” (Marshall 223).

Both women, then, make choices about their lives that come to be reflected in their appearance. In casting off what de Beauvoir called the “bondage of elegance” (Wilson 125), Kate Brown and Avatara Johnson discard disguise in favor of the authentic, the natural, the real. In the quintessential ironic twist, the very trappings they had used to transcend barriers of age, class, and race actually bound them, yet, once those trappings are stripped away, Kate and Avatara overcome societal expectations to find their true selves, the ultimate transcendence.

Works Cited

Beauvoir, Simone. The Second Sex. New York: Vintage, 1952.

Brown-Hinds, Paulette. “In the Spirit: Dance as Healing Ritual in Paule Marshall’s Praisesong for the Widow.” Religion and Literature 27 (1995): 107-17.

Craik, Jennifer. The Face of Fashion. New York: Routledge, 1994.

Lederer, Mary. “The Passage Back: Cultural Appropriation and Incorporation in
Paule Marshall’s Praisesong for the Widow.” Ufahamu: Journal of the African
Activist Association
21 (1993): 66-79.

Lessing, Doris. The Summer Before the Dark. New York: Vintage, 1973.

Marshall, Paule. Praisesong for the Widow. New York: Plume, 1983.

Rogers, Susan. “Embodying Cultural Memory in Paule Marshall’s Praisesong
for the Widow
.” African American Review 34 (2000): 77-94.

Wells, Linda. “’What Shall I Give My Children?’ The Role of Mentor in Gloria
Naylor’s The Women of Brewster Place and Paule Marshall’s Praisesong
for the Widow
.” Explorations in Ethnic Studies: The Journal of the National
Association for Ethnic Studies
13 (1990): 41-57.

Wilson, Elizabeth. Adorned in Dreams. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 2003.

Back to Top
Journal Home

© 2006 Americana: The Institute for the Study of American Popular Culture